'MAESTRO MOMENTS' SESSION TO FEATURE
COFOUNDER OF CHOIR FOR THE HOMELESS
B Y M I K E M c I N A L L Y
San Diego singer-songwriter Steph Johnson was in the midst of a successful two-decade career, racking up awards and making albums that showcased her blend of jazz, soul, rock, and blues.
But it wasn’t until 2016 that she found what she calls “my purpose in this life.” That’s when she cofounded San Diego’s Voices of Our City Choir, an ensemble that features unsheltered people. Since its founding, the group has grown to more than 225 voices and has helped more than 60 of its members find housing.
The choir has made national waves as well: It was a semifinalist last year on the TV show America’s Got Talent,,has been featured in a PBS documentary (watch HERE), and has performed with the San Diego Symphony.
Johnson will talk about her musical journey at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14, as the guest in the Corvallis Repertory Singers’ “Maestro Moments” series of online conversations. The conversation will be led by Steven Zielke, the artistic director of the Repertory Singers and the director of choral studies at Oregon State University.
The session, to be held via Zoom, is free, but registration is required. See the box for additional information on how to register.
To offer more background before Sunday’s session, we emailed Johnson a list of questions, giving her a chance to elaborate on topics ranging from misconceptions surrounding homelessness and how her work with the choir helped to shape the recording of So in Love, her 2020 collection of jazz standards and favorite ballads.
For more information, go to the Repertory Singers’ website at repsing.org.
You've had a 20-year career in music, so you're not a neophyte. But what did you have to learn about leading a chorus as Voices of Our City started?
First, we learned how to create a welcoming space for each person who walked through the door. Many of our singers hadn’t eaten, they needed drinking water, safety, a restroom, an outlet to charge their phone — so perfecting a vocal, or jumping into technical stuff, was not the most important piece in our coming together. As we focused on creating an environment full of joy and ease, our choir members relaxed into their voice. We chose songs that were fun, popular hits that our singers remembered: soul music by artists like Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, and Stevie Wonder became the soundtrack to our weekly rehearsals. As time went on, we assigned parts and worked on harmony but that was almost secondary to our coming together to breathe, to listen, to receive the healing benefits of the music. The professional musician in me had to learn how to let go and simply allow our rehearsals and performances to be what whatever they were going to be in that moment.
What's the one misconception about people who are unsheltered that bugs you the most?
Unaffordable housing, nonlivable wages, health issues, job loss, trauma, poverty, etc. are just a few examples of what may cause a person to become homeless. The Americanized definition of a successful life does not leave much room for individual healing or recovery. The assumption that an unsheltered person you see living on the street did something to be there is one founded in a lack of empathy and understanding.
There is also often the assumption that a person who is homeless is addicted to drugs. I have met many of my unsheltered neighbors who do not struggle with addiction at all. When I do encounter individuals struggling with substance dependencies, I recognize it as a self-medicated approach to living their life. (Also, I know a lot of people who own homes and cope with life by drinking lots of wine. Just saying… :)
The Voices of Our City Choir mission is to change the experience and perception of homelessness through music. Our unsheltered singers live a most challenging existence, while enduring a constant cycle of ticketing and criminalizing for simply being — which of course prevents any real progress from taking place. The power of empathy, compassion, community, access to resources and housing will build a bridge to recovery from homelessness — nothing else.
What's next for the choir after that run on America’s Got Talent?
We are working on our songbook and developing the material for a full-length album. We offer a myriad of music workshops, one of which is songwriting. My goal this year is to develop these original songs with our singers and record their creations to share with the world.
You put your musical career on hold to focus on your work with the choir. Last year, you released your fifth album, So in Love. Do you think your work with the choir shaped the process of making it?
I love this question! Yes, it did! With the choir I found my purpose in this life and that is an incredible feeling. I know, and live, in joy — I feel more in touch with who I truly am because of the choir. The songs on my album are all songs that bring up ease, joy, and love for me. The experience of making my album was a dream come true – working with pianist Josh Nelson, guitarist Anthony Wilson, trumpeter/flugelhornist Chris Lawrence, drummer Richard Sellers, and my husband, bassist Rob Thorsen, was like an ease sandwich. Ha-ha. I mean, I have worked in many projects, writing and slinging my guitar at many (many) gigs. All the things that I have worked for in my life led up to the moment of making one of my greatest recordings to date. So in Love is how I feel, overwhelmingly grateful to be alive, to have purpose and to have the support to live a life of service.
So in Love features 10 terrific covers of jazz and pop standards. What kind of overall feel were you looking to create on the album when you picked those particular songs? Can it be terrifying to cover a standard that's closely associated with another singer, like "Here's to Life," a signature tune for Shirley Horn? (And is there a song on “So in Love" that you think would be a great choice for the choir?)
The vibe I wanted to share through my last recording was simply a soothing musical offering for deep relaxation and joy. This music could be played in your headphones to catch every nuance or played in the background while you have a glass of wine and make dinner. I want everyone to experience the transformative power of self-love and care and I hope that comes through in my music. And yes, it is somewhat courageous to record songs made famous by singers who’ve inspired — maybe even influenced your artistic approach and sound. I think as a singer you hope to convey your own feelings and emotions through being your authentic self — and that is a journey. You can’t fake that journey! I can hear the growth in my voice on this recording — the way I approached the music was relaxed and in the moment. I’m not sure if there are any songs on this record that would be right for the choir, but who knows! I’ll have to give that more thought.
What songs, in addition to the 10 on So in Love, should be on an essential Steph Johnson Spotify list?
A Steph Johnson Spotify list? I am so honored! I think my best work has come out in my last two albums, So in Love and Music is Art. Music is Art features all original work by me, produced by our good friend Kamau Kenyatta. (His work has spanned decades and most recently includes producing Gregory Porter, a fantastic singer and artist who performs all over the world.) Some standout songs on Music is Art include “Happy People,” “Rich Like This,” “You and I,” and “Maybe,” which was used in the end credits of the documentary film The Homeless Chorus Speaks, by Susan Polis Schutz. Amazingly, the doc continues to air on PBS to this day! The documentary shows the beginning of starting the choir and offers an honest glimpse of homelessness as told through the personal stories of our choir members.
BELOW: The Voices of Our City Choir performs David Bowie’s “Heroes” during the America's Got Talent semifinals:
And you can listen to Johnson’s So in Love on Spotify by clicking this link: http://spoti.fi/2YNxiHE.
CHECK IT OUT
WHAT: Corvallis Repertory Singers’ “Maestro Moments” online discussion, with San Diego singer-songwriter Steph Johnson, co-founder of the Voices of Our City Choir, which features singers who are unsheltered.
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14
WHERE: The conversation will be held via Zoom.
COST: The session is free, but registration is required. Click here to register. http://bit.ly/39xm9kj
After registering, guests will receive a confirmation email containing details about joining the meeting.